Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Minimum Entry Requirements for Feminism

Recently, at a party, I got into a discussion about the role of intersectionality in feminism (because getting into debates* about the kyriachy is just how I roll at parties). and it got me thinking about the 'minimum standard' for feminism - what exactly do you have to say or do to be able to call yourself a feminist?

Caitlin Moran's already broached this subject in her book, where she states that, if you (a) have a vagina and (b) want to be in control of it, you are a feminist. It's nice and simple, I suppose, but to me, the inclusion of having a vagina seems to be fairly arbitrary. Last I checked, my genitals weren't releasing any special 'not being a dick' potion into my bloodstream (pun shamefully intended). Apart from the fact that it smacks of  trans* and genderqueer erasure, I completely disagree with the assertion that nobody with a penis can ever be a feminist. What's more, while (a) is arbitrary, (b) is terribly insufficient. I could be as adamant as I like that I should be in charge of my own vagina but, if I don't give a gorilla's gonads what happens to other women's vaginas, that's not feminism, that's just self-interest. I tend to assume Moran was just writing for effect here since, as a definition of feminism, it actually doesn't make much sense. What makes you a feminist is not your relationship to your own personal Sarlacc pit**, it's the views you hold and the way you engage with the world. Instead, I would define a feminist as anyone who believes that all women should be free from oppression, and act accordingly.

This is actually a much harder criteria to meet than Moran's (and she doesn't actually seem to meet it at times). The key is in the word 'all'. Any kind of vaguely useful feminism has to acknowledge that the oppression a straight, able-bodied, trans* woman of colour faces will be very different to the oppression faced by a cis, white lesbian with a disability and it's unacceptable to claim you are a feminist while maintaining that one of these women deserves equality and the other does not. This is the problem with Moran's recent tweet that she "literally couldn't give a shit" about the lack of representation of women of colour on TV. What she's effectively saying is that, as long as women like her are represented, it's all fine and dandy. That's not feminism, that's self-interest.

 I don't think my definition of feminism is that radical, but I do think that it necessitates an active engagement with race, trans* issues, sexuality, disability, class and any other axis of oppression and privilege, which the mainstream feminist movement is simply not providing. Let's face it, we are doing a terrible job of this right now. I don't know how many blog posts I've read by women of colour who feel so marginalised and oppressed in a movement that is supposed to be about their experiences and rights that they have left it, I just know it's more than I'm OK with. If women are leaving feminism because it is oppressive to them, we are doing something massively wrong. 

If we claim to be feminists, it's high time we started owning our privilege (we've all got some hidden away somewhere) and actually engaging with intersectional issues before the question 'Are you a feminist?' comes to mean, 'Are you a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, middle class woman who wants to be in charge of her own vagina, regardless of what's happening to other vaginas?' And that's not really a feminism I want to be a part of.

*The person in question was lovely and interesting and, to be fair, we didn't really disagree about very much at all so it seems a bit much to call it a 'debate.' 

**A euphemism that is definitely my favourite thing to come out of Moran's book and works, according to her, for obvious reasons as well as the fact that, no matter how much it wants Han Solo inside it, it never quite gets him. This I can relate to.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

An Open Letter to the Guy Who Invited Me to "Suck [His] Nuts" Loudly From Across the Road

Dear Guy Who Invited Me to "Suck [His] Nuts" Loudly From Across the Road,

You are an obnoxious tool.

Yours Sincerely,

Sash Rocket

Friday, 12 October 2012

Pirates and Princesses

I work in primary education and one of the reasons I love my job is that sometimes (like today) I get to put on a pirate hat and pretend it's 'to engage the children.' I spent the day on a training course about teaching reading where, at lunch, we were set loose on a table of props and toys that can be used to make phonics lessons more exciting.* Naturally, I honed in on the oversized pirate hat, complete with treasure map, treasure and inflatable treasure chest, which I expertly accessorised with a sparkly wand. This fact in and of itself isn't very interesting but the reactions I heard from the other teachers got me pretty riled up, possibly more than it should have: "Oh, a pirate hat! To get boys interested in phonics! I bet boys would really engage with that, if you swapped the wand for a cutlass so you can stab at the phonemes."

Yes, yes, this is just another tiny incident of stereotyping. It's not rape culture, or denying women the vote, or taking girls out of school to marry men four times their age.** Except that it's just another tiny incident of stereotyping. And for the past year and a half that I've been working in education, there's been a steady dripping tap effect of gender essentialism.*** Sometimes it's as simple as a more 'traditional' member of staff expressing surprise that both boys and girls play rugby in PE but often, when you actually start to analyse it, it can be quite sinister. There's an unquestioned assumption that boys will behave more disruptively and more aggressively than girls, that boys won't engage with literacy and girls won't be good at maths, that girls will mature more quickly than boys will. The thing is, teacher expectations have a massive impact on a child's learning - really massive, and much bigger than any impact gender might have (in fact, teaching to gender has been shown to be completely ineffective in this meta-analysis). Pretty much all our assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies, as teachers discipline boys and girls differently, or maybe don't push boys as much as girls in literacy, or girls as much as boys in maths. Inevitably, this means children will learn that there are different standards of behaviour for men and women, and those children who have not had proper teacher support will fail to progress, further perpetuating stereotypes. I'd like to say a lot of this is subconscious but I know it often isn't. One book that was recommended to me as a great training resource actually (in all seriousness) advises quickly breaking up fights between boys but taking a pause before intervening in "girl fights", lest you get scratched by "an angry pair of talons". To suggest that teachers spend any time allowing children to physically harm one another based on their gender is not only incredibly insulting, it's also grossly irresponsible.

The fact that gender stereotyping halts children's education should be enough to show that it's just not on, but it's not the only problem; gender essentialism in schools teaches children that there is a 'right' way to be a boy and a 'right' way to be a girl, not to mention that it completely erases trans* and genderqueer people, and these messages are really damaging. It tells anyone outside the gender binary or who doesn't fall into a stereotypical box that they are abnormal or not worthy of recognition, as well as contributing to a hugely cissexist society by failing to recognise that non-binary experiences are just as valid as cisgender experiences. This is our education system and we are (a) completely, 100% failing to educate people about even the existence of anyone outside the gender binary and (b) teaching children something entirely incorrect about How People Work. Not cool. I've even seen more than one teacher who feels it's appropriate to make jokes about children not fitting gender stereotypes, and nobody else seems to bat an eyelid. Sometimes I do wonder if I'm being unreasonable, given how little everyone else seems to think this matters, but then I remember what we're essentially saying to these children - that, to be validated, to 'count', you must conform to either (a) or (b), depending on which category we say you are and, if you don't, you are a fair target for ridicule from the people who are there to protect you. If we want to combat gender essentialism and cissexism amongst adults and teenagers, we have to eradicate it from primary schools first, since this is where we form our fundamental view of society. Yes, these individual instances may be 'trivial' (I'm actually not sure they all are), but they add up to something fucking huge.

In a very-tangentially-related note, I'll be singing songs and making fun of Michael Gove here tomorrow!

*There's something incredibly heartwarming about a group of adults, from early 20s to late 50s, all getting thoroughly excited by Boggle and pom poms.

**You can petition the UN to Do Stuff about this here.

***Other kinds of stereotyping occur in education, too but, in my experience, everyone seems to have accepted that stereotypes are always A Bad Thing, except in the case of gender, when they're a delightfully -un-PC, common-sense thing that the kids love and are self-evident.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Why You Should Never/Always Read the Comments

I know. I know not to read the comments. Ever. But every single time I see an article talking about how great same-sex marriage will be, or the complexity of gender, or anything else that goes even slightly against all the rest of the kyriachal nonsense, I can't help but think 'maybe, just maybe, everyone's coming round and it'll all be OK...' and I can't help but read the comments, half expecting and always hoping to see a mass of well-reasoned, undickish support. And, each time, I am re-enlightened as to exactly how closed-minded, bigoted, aggressive or (if we're really lucky) all three people can be.

I recently came across this article in the Huffington Post. Although none of the few comments were violent or particularly angry*, I was just so thoroughly disappointed that, on an article about street harassment, all of the comments were on the themes of  'boys will be boys, ignore it and move on' and (worse), 'so, when can I solicit strangers for sex?' I won't go into detail, as I've already done so** but why, oh why do people think that these are appropriate or relevant responses to a woman saying she feels unsafe because of morons who feel they're entitled to her time at 1am on a dangerous road?

The failings of these commenters as potential feminists wasn't really my point. It's more the disappointment I inevitably feel when I'm reminded what the political mainstream actually looks like. It's so easy for me to forget that, in my little bubble of awesome queer feminists and, at the end of the day, that's why I can't listen when I remind myself not to read the comments. If I did, I'd forget that I need to keep going. If I didn't expose myself to anything rage-inducing, all I'd be doing would be singing songs and discussing the concepts of privilege and oppression with people who are all on my side anyway. Besides, it was only after seeing the comments thread on a particular article that I realised we still need radical feminism at all (up until then, I'd pretty much assumed any sexist remarks I heard were just unfunny jokes). So, yes, I'm making myself angry when I read the comments but, sometimes, I think that's actually a good thing.

*at the time I found the article, unfortunately not anymore
**on the comments page, no less! Thereby rendering my the point of this paragraph somewhat moot, I suppose...